Holiday Reamde

Last week, for my holiday in Cornwall, I took some “hard” reading with me, but I was determined to have some holiday reading too. Having mentioned Neal Stephenson in a previous post, I was reminded that I hadn’t ever picked up one of his more recent books, Reamde. Shopping around, it was pretty cheap on Kindle so I downloaded it, and took it with me.

I wasn’t expecting it to immerse me back in the world of games and cultural heritage, in fact, I was hoping to be taken on some flight of scientific fantasy. But as Mick Jagger once sang “you don’t always get what you want…”

IF THERE WERE going to be K’Sheteriae and Dwinn, and if Skeletor and Don Donald and their acolytes were going to clog the publishing industry’s distribution channels with works of fiction detailing their historical exploits going back thousands of years, then it was necessary for those two races to be distinct in what archaeologists would call their material culture: their clothing, architecture, decorative arts, and so on. Accordingly Corporation 9592 had hired artists and architects and musicians and costume designers to create those material cultures consistent with the “bible” of T’Rain as laid down by Skeletor and Don Donald.

 Reamde page 46

Reamde follows the adventures around one Richard Forthrast, co-founder of a company that produces a wildly successful MMORPG called T’Rain. The game is based on (and portrayed as a competitor to) World of Warcraft but the attention to detail in material culture is reminiscent of Skyrim, which has of course inspired more than one “ludic archaeologist“.

I got quite excited as the opening chapters progressed. The last Stephenson book I read, Anathem taught me a lot about mathatics and quantum theory, and I thought he might blow my mind about game design too. Sadly (though entertainingly) the novel became an extended transcontinental shootout involving the various members of  Forthrast family, a couple of chinese teenagers, a Hungarian hacker, a Russian “security consultant”, a British MI6 agent and a Welsh muslim terrorist.

The references to the game are quite fun and experimental though. They do suggest that the author is a narrativist:

Because Corporation 9592, at bottom, didn’t make anything in the way that a steel mill did. And it didn’t even really sell anything in the sense that, say, did. It just extracted cash flow from the players’ desire to own virtual goods that could confer status on their fictional characters as they ran around T’Rain acting out greater or lesser parts in a story. And they all suspected, though they couldn’t really prove, that a good story was as foundational to that business as, say, a blast furnace was to a steel mill.

Reamde page 209

Which is why this fictional company has a department called Narrative Dynamics. But his leading character does think ludically too: the novel recounts how they come up with the idea that the core “Medieval Armed Combat” mechanic could be used to help with monotonous real-world jobs. This is like an idea my wife had mentioned a couple of years back. The example in the book was airport security, but it made me laugh when I saw the story about Fraxinus.

The other thing that I liked about T’Rain (and something that I miss in Skyrim) was the vassal system – players were not simply lone adventurers, but could recruit (or be recruited into) a gang, warband, household or army, in something like a pyramid selling scheme, all of which feels like a more realistic medieval style world than one in which everyone is equal. The novel recounts how this eventually divides the players into two factions, not the artificial Good and Evil factions invented by the games creators, but the Forces of Brightness (Manga inspired players who dressed their characters in lurid colours) and the Earthtone Coalition (more eurocentric gamers who enjoyed more Tolkienesque fantasy). These two factions of course starting to produce material cultures that built on the created archaeology of the world, but which were something entirely new and unplanned.

A fun read, even if not quite the escape I was hoping for.